Bum, da, da, dum, dum, du, du, du, Pop! That's my flimsy transliteration of what might arguably be considered the most recognizable theme to ever grace a network television show. Jonathan Wolff is the man who took those finger pops and lip smacks and turned them in to cultural icons. As I interviewed him, I realized that he's a lot more than just a great composer. He's also a great business person. He had so much good information to share, I decided to turn this in to a two-part interview. Don't miss part two next month. You can't find this information in any books I know of! (Ed.)
Where did you grow up?
In Louisville, Kentucky.
What was it that first got you into music?
I always played music as a kid. I just liked doing it, and eventually it became more important to me than other things; like sports. I did those things too, but I mostly just played lots and lots of music. I thought it was cool to write songs and record them. And at a certain point, early in high school, I realized that it was a tool for popularity.
To meet girls?
That or just kids that I would normally have nothing to do with. For kids who would otherwise have had no reason to be friends with me; all of a sudden, I was useful.
I'll bet you owned a Farfisa Mini Compact.
Oh God yes, I had everything. I scoured the pawn shops constantly for electric pianos and portable organs and other instruments.
I read in your bio that you were playing bar mitzvahs and weddings and parties before you could drive. You were also doing arrangements for local big bands and acting as a music director for local theater and opera groups, as well as producing tracks for local artists. How did you get all those gigs as a kid with peachfuzz on your face? Are you that rare combination of musician and businessman?
It was a small pond at the time. There weren't that many people who had all that much experience, and Louisville was starting to grow, starting to have production needs, radio spots and station I.D.'s. Up to that point, it couldn't have supported many production professionals. I just happened to be there at the right time, anxious and eager to do all that stuff, and I did it until I developed a little bit of a reputation.
Did you ride your bike to gigs or did you have your parents drive you (laughs)?
Sometimes my folks drove me. But whenever possible, I'd make it part of my deal that someone would have to pick me up. Actually it was kind of cool. Because I was Music Director for a lot of fashion shows and beauty pageants, they'd always have one of the models or contestants pick me up from school to take me to the rehearsals.
Tough gig! Let's talk about when you moved to L.A. in ė76 to go to USC and dropped out after a year to go to work as a studio musician/orchestrator/recording engineer. How did you become connected enough to work on records and scores and jingles after being here in L.A. for only one year and being so young?
I was seventeen when I got here. I played on a lot of demos for people at school and just started meeting people by playing sessions. I got really serious about being a keyboardist, and the other instruments—they're nice, but I realized that in this town, you have to be really good at what you do, and you've got to focus on that as a musician. So I concentrated on piano and keyboards. Also, remember it was 1976—the time of the synth revolution, Sequential Circuits and Oberheim and Moog. It was a great time to be a keyboardist for those artists who made that leap into it. That I could play piano and the extra keyboards got me a lot of work on records, jingles and TV scores.
People might think your success came directly from working on "Seinfeld," but you were already quite successful before you began working on "Seinfeld" in 1990. You worked on episodes of shows like "Falcon Crest," "Love Boat," "21 Jump Street," "Alice," "Perfect Strangers," "Fantasy Island". I would imagine that most of the music that you did for those shows was pretty straight ahead. How did you get picked to be Seinfeld's guy and how did you come up with the music that was for its time, as unusual as the show was?
I did a lot of special material for the shows you mentioned; often when they needed a song written or a dance routine, a production number,—that's what I did. And I had been sole composer on several series before "Seinfeld" came out. I had already been doing "Who's The Boss," which at the time was a big hit. "Seinfeld" because of its huge, unprecedented popularity, would have catapulted anybody's career who was sitting in that composer's seat. I just happened to be sitting in the right seat at the right time, in the right vehicle, and yes, it helped my career a lot.
So why did they call you? How did you get the gig?
My good buddy George Wallace.
The comedian or the late Governor of Alabama (laughs)?
The comedian. George and I had been on the road together for years. I'd conduct, he'd do the opening acts, and we got to be friendly. We had a couple acts that we did at the same time. Tom Jones and Diana Ross if I remember correctly. He and Jerry are best friends. Jerry actually does have a best friend named George and he mentioned to me that his buddy Jerry Seinfeld was trying to get this show going and he was having trouble with music. They kept talking to composers and hearing music that they didn't like and they weren't sure what to do, so he hooked me up with Jerry. George said to me, "You're gonna get this call from Jerry, be nice to him."
And is George still getting 10% of all the money you make from those shows?
I tell George that I owe him a small island somewhere and an airline to get him back and forth. Jerry called me directly and said "George Wallace said you're my man," and showed me what some other composers had tried for him. I recognized that it wasn't a musical problem, rather a sound design problem. At the time, the pilot was called "The Seinfeld Chronicles" and the opening titles had Jerry doing stand up material—with every week being a different monologue. Jerry wanted music that was signature and unique and quirky—identifiable. Remember, this was the late '80s, signature, identifiable TV music meant melody. Thematic melody.
Right, like "Cheers" or "L.A. Law"
Whatever. You can't have melody while he's trying to do monologue—they butt heads. So the sound design problem I saw was that the opening title already had its melody—it's Jerry! So I built the music around him. And instead of using standard instruments like drums and clarinets, because of the human nature of the melody—his voice, I went with the organic sounds of the finger snaps, mouth pops, lip smacks, and tongue noises.
Did you sample yourself doing it?
Yeah. And for the pacing, I watched some of his HBO Special and noticed that he has a rhythmic, musical pacing to the way he delivers his monologue. I clocked a tempo for it—about 110, and built the music around him at that tempo. The bass mainly hangs out in a frequency range that doesn't interfere with his voice, below him—it supports him as a bass does with a melody.
You must have learned this from doing commercials with voice-overs?
Yeah, because you want a clear cut frequency path for your voice-over artists or your jingle singers so that they're front and center and clear while being supported by good production. Same thing when you're making a record. And that's how I built this theme for "Seinfeld." To adapt to different monologues, the music is completely modular. And it worked—it was quirky and fun and identifiable and signature.
Did he love it when he heard it?
He did. He really liked it a lot. He liked that it was kind of weird. That was the first thing he said about it.
He didn't send you back in for re-writes over and over again?
He was the coolest. Actually, he came over one day and I showed him, I had already reviewed his material and mocked up a groove and he sat here while I created this "thing" for him. When he left, that was it—it was done. He called me the next day and said "That was cool, that was fun! Can we do it again? Just ėcause I'm free and if you're available, let's make sure that we've got what we want." So he came back and we tinkered some more. To be honest, I don't remember which day's version we ended up using.
Has the "Seinfeld" theme become any kind of an albatross for you? Has it become so signature for you as a composer that people come to you now looking for totally quirky or do they still come to you looking for big lush dramatic themes?
It hasn't hurt me. At the moment that hasn't happened. In general, Hollywood, particularly the TV industry, is a ėme-too' town. People want to be associated with winners and they want to emulate and learn from and repeat the successes of others. So "Seinfeld" certainly put me on the list of potential composers for a lot of shows that certainly I wouldn't have been on if not for the "Seinfeld" association. First of all, Castle Rock, the company that produced "Seinfeld" has been really good to me; they've been very loyal. So yeah, "Seinfeld" has been a very good thing for me during and after the series.
But, in answer to your question. It's all fresh. Each job starts over. Obviously, I can't use the twangy bass because it's "Seinfeld." In fact, some of my friends who are composers, have complained to me that they can't use it either!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to the same kind of work you do? How does an 18-year old who lives in Four Points, Kansas end up being you?
Right now, I think if you really want to do TV you have to be here in L.A. At some point in the future it will be a global enough marketplace, that you won't have to live here to start your career.
Okay, once you get off the bus at the Greyhound terminal, where do your feet take you next?
There is no formula for it. If there were a formula, everyone would do it.
Are production music libraries a good starting point for people who want to gain experience?
Doing work for music libraries is good for experience. You need the experience of doing all kinds of music, because for the shows that I've worked on, every script is different. In one day around here, I will have to record a piano concerto, Bluegrass music, an old school rap and maybe some Dixieland. You've got to be able to do all of it. And a production library is a good place to really exercise those muscles.
So if you exercise those muscles and get a dozen cuts...
Actually, that's a more important reason for doing it—income stream. Production libraries, although they typically own 100% of the publishing of whatever you work on...
At least you own the writer's share.
Exactly! You're earning money through ASCAP, BMI or SESAC when your cues are broadcast. That's so, so, so important. As an entry level composer, you need to start working on that broadcast catalog. There are certain types of music that are global and timeless. If you're doing what's hot this week on the radio, well, maybe you'll get some placements this week, but it's not continuous. But if you have a good package of news, suspense, orchestral, cues that are timeless—you're starting to work on that royalty income that will sustain you.
Well, let's say that kid from Kansas, stays in Kansas and has music in five different libraries—a couple dozen cuts at five different libraries. And now he's making $30, 40, 50,000 a year...
Stay in Kansas. The air's clean. It's nice. Marry the girl next door.
Most of the big songwriters I've interviewed are very literate people. They read a lot of novels, it helps them write better songs. It gives them a deep well of subject matter. Does it help you to listen to many kinds of music, including stuff like Klezmer or East African drum music?
Sure. You have to have a wide scope of exposure and do the best you can to have good faculty in all of them. You have to be able to perform in any genre; to play jazz and make it sound like jazz or play rock & roll and make it sound like rock & roll. As a composer and a player you need to be able to do that. There are a lot of young players and composers who've never sat in a pit orchestra. They've never done chamber music. All that's important.
One of the things we're planning at TAXI this year is to get listings from people who need music for student films at NYU, UCLA, USC, and some of the other top film schools, figuring that our members can mature with the film makers.
It's so true. Make your mistakes on student films, go ahead (laughs). And sometimes those mistakes turn out to be glorious, that's how you get great inventions, by making mistakes. I did a lot of student films before I moved here and after I moved here just for the experience of doing them.
Do you recommend that neophytes take any jobs they can get no matter how low the pay just to gain the experience and exposure?
There are other ways to be compensated other than up front money. Don't work for free. Make sure that if you are going to work for very low pay, that there are accommodations made so you own the music, you own the copyright, you're able to exploit it to third parties. If producers with very little money really needs exclusive license to the music, license it to them for a term. Say, "Okay I'll do it for $1,000—I'll do your film for the measly amount you're gonna pay me and you've got it for six months. If the film is still alive, if you're still selling it, if you're still distributing it, and if you've got an income stream from this after six months, then you've got to pay me another $1,000." Or you could license it to them on a limited basis. "What are you doing with this film?" "Well I'm going to take it to a film festival." "Good, here's your license. For that $1,000, you can show it at film festivals, but that's it. If you get a deal to show it on free or basic cable TV or pay TV or theatrical home video, for any of these markets, you've got to pay me another $1,000."
In situations where money is tight, there are many ways to reserve performance rights on something, making it so that you're not being taking advantage of. There are projects that legitimately can't afford to pay lots of money for their composers. And it's a great training ground for entry level composers.
Student filmsI would imagine there's no money in that. "We'll buy you the tape," is about what you're going get.
That's okay provided that, you, the composer, still own that music and you can exploit it. My problem is with deals that entry level composers sometimes make where they're not making money and they don't own the product. It's unfair if the film does have an afterlife, and it goes to home video and overseas, and the distributors and the producers are all making money, but the composer never got paid because he made a bad deal. Again, I've got to stress, when necessary, there are other ways, rather than getting paid up front to do a project. Make sure that if there is a revenue stream for the project, that you're included in it.